8 Lessons Learned from One of the Largest Migrations in Ad Ops History
by Kathy Knott, on Oct 29, 2020 3:21:09 PM
Industry veteran Kathy Knott has considerable experience and insight on Ad Ops team management. Having managed Ad Operations for Millennial Media, AOL and Oath for about 10 years, she’s seen it all. In her career, she's managed upwards of 700 employees across numerous ad tech stacks. Read on to learn Kathy’s 8 lessons learned from the ad stack migrations she’s been a part of in her career.
Over the course of the past decade, I've been fortunate enough to lead some incredibly talented ad operations (Ad Ops) teams at companies like Millennial Media, AOL, and Yahoo.
When these three organizations joined together, it resulted in one very large Ad Ops migration project.
Coming into the merger, the landscape included:
- 2 separate ad stacks for Millennial Media
- 3 separate ad stacks for AOL
- 2 separate ad stacks for Yahoo
In addition to the technical migration, there were three distinct Ad Ops teams that now had to function as a single unit, each with extensive experience on their particular ad stacks, but no experience on the others.
Over the course of 6 months, we reduced down from 7 ad stacks and standardized on 3. And over the course of 8 months, we made sure all Ad Ops team members were not only proficient, but experts on all 3 stacks. This process was critical to the ongoing success of our Ad Ops strategy.
From cross training, to sunsetting ad stacks, here's what I've found are the most important lessons to take away from the process.
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Cross Training is Key
In Ad Ops, your job is to deliver the best value on client campaigns. Because of that, making sure each member of the Ad Ops team knew how to deliver the best results regardless of which ad tech stack they were most familiar with was paramount.
Sometimes, the stack an individual team member was comfortable with was not actually the best for a particular client or campaign. That meant making sure every team member could proficiently use any of our tech stacks to deliver.
Cross Train on One Stack at a Time
The first, and most important tip, I can give you in this process is to pick one single tech stack to train on at a time. Trying to train your team on multiple stacks simultaneously will result only in confusion and lack of retention.
Choose quality over quantity and build a plan that allows you to focus on training your entire team on a single stack at a given time, and then move on to the next stack when you are finished.
Trust me, you’ll thank me in the end (and so will your team).
Use the Buddy System
We developed a buddy system for training to make this process the most efficient and effective it could be.
Most people learn best (and fastest) by doing. We didn’t want to put our entire team in a bunch of training sessions (where they couldn’t be working) and bore them to death.
Instead, we gave them the tools to learn as they executed, making it easier to retain skills and allowing for work to still get done.
Our buddy system worked like this:
- For the given tech stack that we were training on, we paired up mentors (those who had expertise in the stack) and mentees (those who were new to the stack).
- Mentors would train mentees on executing specific actions on the tech stack.
- Mentees would be assigned campaigns to execute (with their mentor’s help), and their mentor would review all activity before taking it live.
Some important things to keep in mind when pairing mentors are both work and learning style. Our goal was to pair buddies such that they’d work well together and learn rather than butting heads.
So, make sure you have a good handle on the personality types on your team when you are building out pairs.
Manage External Concerns
All of that sounds well and good, but add the sales team into the mix, and you know emotions will run high.
Sellers are wary of letting those they consider “inexperienced” deliver campaigns for a client, so with a migration of this size, there is bound to be a lot of fear.
We managed that by simply making sure the mentor, or more experienced person on the stack, remained the primary point of contact. They managed what was needed, and then coached their mentee on how to execute it correctly.
This process helped keep sellers comfortable without inhibiting those who were less experienced from having a chance to learn.
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Create a Learning Environment
Another really important part of this process was creating the right environment. Learning a new ad tech stack every month is a pretty big feat, and it only works if your entire team is ready and excited to do so.
As a leader, it's your job to create an environment where your team isn’t afraid to ask questions, and in fact, they are encouraged to do so. Most of the time, if one person has a question, at least 3 others will too.
We had a saying we used on a regular basis during this process to help instill the mindset we needed to be successful: “Wine not Whine.”
Not only do you need people to feel comfortable asking questions, you need them to be okay with the fact that it is going to be tough for a little while. Working with them to accept the process for what it was, and not to fall into a pattern of whining and complaining made it much easier to get through.
What is good training without tracking? You have to know if people are learning to make any solid forward movement. We did this in a couple of ways.
We built out a curriculum of weekly goals which defined what actions or activities the newbies should be able to do competently in the new tech stack by the end of each week. Their buddies were then responsible for measuring this at the end of the week and “grading” their progress in a centralized location.
When we noticed someone was falling behind or struggling, our first step was to check their compatibility with their trainer. Everyone has different teaching and learning styles, and while we did our best to pair people with similar styles, you can’t know everything.
Instead of assuming there was a problem with the student, we started by making sure they worked well with their mentor and shifted as needed.
Deprecating and Sunsetting Ad Stacks
And in case a huge cross training initiative wasn’t crazy enough, you often have to plan on deprecating old stacks you no longer want or need as part of your migration.
Understanding your sunsetting and consolidation plan is key in determining the order in which you schedule cross training. (Because who wants to invest a month training everyone on a tech stack that is going away a week later?)
Make Strategic Decisions
The first step in this process is taking a strategic look at the tech stacks in front of you and the landscape you’d like to have at the end of the process.
There is no clear-cut one-size-fits-all process for this, but some of the important things to consider when deciding which stacks to keep are:
- Are there stacks that support a variety of ad formats? Generally, you are looking to find places where you can get the most out of a single stack, so the ad stacks that support the most formats overall are generally the ones you’ll be keeping.
- Are there stacks that only support a single, or very few ad formats? You want to reduce redundancy and complication wherever possible, so typically you will look to sunset stacks that have a more limited capability in favor of those that can handle multiple ad formats.
- What are engineering’s goals? Engineering is going to have a very clear vision of what they want the company’s technology landscape to look like, so working with them from the very beginning on which stacks to keep or sunset is important.
Once you’ve answered these questions, you can make a pretty solid list of which stacks are staying and which are going, and work backward to build your consolidation plan.
Deprecate One Stack at a Time
Does this sound familiar? It should.
As with training, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Sunset and consolidate only one ad tech stack at a time. Trust me.
Manage External Concerns
Wow, am I starting to sound like a broken record?
It bears repeating: sellers will be freaking out about changes for all the same reasons we discussed in the training section. They will have the same concerns about tech stacks they aren’t familiar with being used to deliver their clients’ campaigns.
The best way to deal with this is to get ahead of it. Make sure once you’ve built the plan, but before you start making big moves, that you’ve got buy-in from sellers on said plan.
Seriously, involve them early and often.
And make sure you actually have buy-in. This doesn’t mean that you’ve just told them about the plan. This means that they feel they’ve had a voice in building it and are fully on board with the plan.
This will create trust that the plan will ultimately lead to better results for their clients. This trust is key to creating a smooth transition.
Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Ad Ops
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The Bottom Line
Undergoing a massive migration is not going to be easy, so don’t expect it to be. Expect it to take time, and give your team the time they need to do it right.
Focus on quality over speed. And plan like your job depends on it (because it kind of does).